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Mar 30, 9:03 AM EDT

Applications for US unemployment aid fell to 258K last week

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Fewer Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, evidence that the U.S. job market remains healthy.

THE NUMBERS: Weekly applications for unemployment aid dropped 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 258,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose to 254,250.

The number of people receiving benefits rose 65,000 to 2.05 million. Yet that figure is down 5.7 percent from a year ago.

THE TAKEAWAY: Applications are a proxy for layoffs and have remained below 300,000, a historically low level, for 108 weeks. That's the longest such stretch since 1970.

Such a low level of applications suggests companies are cutting few jobs. It also indicates that those who are laid off may not be seeking unemployment aid as often as in the past. That could be a good sign that they are quickly finding jobs.

KEY DRIVERS: The economy is growing at a steady, if unspectacular, pace and companies stepped up hiring at the beginning of the year.

The economy grew at a modest 2.1 percent annual rate in the final three months of last year, the Commerce Department said Thursday. That's down from a healthy 3.5 percent in the third quarter. For all of last year, growth was a sluggish 1.6 percent.

Employers added an average of 237,000 jobs in January and February, a pickup from last year's average gains of 187,000. The unemployment rate ticked down to 4.7 percent last month from 4.8 percent.

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